MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Mahler Composing

In this excerpt from John Adams’s review of Jens Malte Fischer’s Mahler biography, it’s intriguing to see what one great composer zeroes in on when describing the creative process of another:

When [Mahler] composed he did it in a white heat, sketching the outlines of his large symphonic forms in a hasty shorthand scrawl, going as fast as his quicksilver mental powers allowed him, usually during all-too-brief summer “vacations” in picturesque alpine settings. A symphony might be composed in the course of one or two of these summer retreats.

But the painstakingly detailed writing out and preparation of performance materials would occupy him for another two or more years before the work would be publicly performed. He was in every sense what we’d now call a control freak. He insisted on conducting all first performances, often treating early rehearsals as a further composing phase, trying out this and that effect on often hapless and confused orchestra members.

His printed scores are full of admonitions to the performers. Musical ideas are marked with emphatic underlinings, accents, and notational and verbal reminders that seem to shout at or plead with the performer to do exactly as the composer wanted. Mahler, long used to dealing with careless or indifferent musicians, appears to have had little faith in the ability of future generations to get his music right.

What would Mahler have thought about his interpreters today? Which ones would have pleased him most — or displeased him least?

Filed under: creativity, John Adams, Mahler


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